Fighting Fire with Fire: Can Fire Positively Impact an Ecosystem? Science Topic: Fire Ecology

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Fighting Fire with Fire:

Can Fire Positively Impact an Ecosystem?
Science Topic: Fire Ecology

Grades: 6th – 8th
Essential Questions:

  • What role does fire play in maintaining healthy ecosystems?

  • How does fire impact the surrounding community?

  • Is there a need to prescribe fire?

  • How have plants and animals adapted to fire?

  • What factors must fire managers consider prior to planning and conducting controlled burns?

Lesson Overview:
Students distinguish between a wildfire and a controlled burn, also known as a prescribed fire. They explore multiple controlled burn scenarios. They explain the positive impacts of fire on ecosystems (e.g., reduce hazardous fuels, dispose of logging debris, prepare sites for seeding/planting, improve wildlife habitat, manage competing vegetation, control insects and disease, improve forage for grazing, enhance appearance, improve access, perpetuate fire-dependent species) and compare and contrast how organisms in different ecosystems have adapted to fire.

Nature Works Everywhere Themes:
Protection:  Controlled burns help keep people and property safe while supporting the plants and animals that have adapted to this natural part of their ecosystems.
Water:  Controlled burns can improve the capacity of natural areas to absorb and filter water in places where fire has played a role in shaping that ecosystem.

Next Generation Science Standards - Middle School:

  • LS1-5: Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence for how environmental and genetic factors influence the growth of organisms.

  • LS2-1: Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for the effects of resource availability on organisms and populations of organisms in an ecosystem.

  • LS2-5: Evaluate competing design solutions for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services.

  • ES3-2: Analyze and interpret data on natural hazards to forecast future catastrophic events and inform the development of technologies to mitigate their effects.

  • ES3-3: Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment.

  • ES3-5: Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century.

  • ETS1-1: Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.

  • ETS1-2: Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

Next Generation Science Standards - High School:

  • HS-LS1-3. Plan and conduct an investigation to provide evidence that feedback mechanisms maintain homeostasis.

  • HS-LS2-2. Use mathematical representations to support and revise explanations based on evidence about factors affecting biodiversity and populations in ecosystems of different scales.

  • HS-LS2-4. Use mathematical representations to support claims for the cycling of matter and flow of energy among organisms in an ecosystem.

  • HS-LS2-7. Design, evaluate, and refine a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity.*

  • HS-LS4-2. Construct an explanation based on evidence that the process of evolution primarily results from four factors: (1) the potential for a species to increase in number, (2) the heritable genetic variation of individuals in a species due to mutation and sexual reproduction, (3) competition for limited resources, and (4) the proliferation of those organisms that are better able to survive and reproduce in the environment.

  • HS-LS4-5. Evaluate the evidence supporting claims that changes in environmental conditions may result in: (1) increases in the number of individuals of some species, (2) the emergence of new species over time, and (3) the extinction of other species.

  • HS-LS4-6. Create or revise a simulation to test a solution to mitigate adverse impacts of human activity on biodiversity.*

  • HS-ESS3-1. Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity.

  • HS-ESS3-3. Create a computational simulation to illustrate the relationships among management of natural resources, the sustainability of human populations, and biodiversity.

  • HS-ETS1-3. Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.

Time Frame:
This lesson is designed to be completed in two 45-minute sessions.


  • Adaptation: A characteristic that increases an organism’s ability to survive and reproduce in its environment.

  • Controlled Burn: A fire purposely lit in order to safely apply a natural process to ensure ecosystem health.

  • Keystone species: A species that has a critical role in maintaining the structure of an ecological community.

  • Behavioral Adaptation: This is something an animal does, usually in response to some type of external stimulus.

  • Structural Adaptation: A physical feature or a part of an organism's body that has helped it to survive in its environment.

Nature Works Everywhere videos that support this lesson plan:

  • Fighting Fire with Fire Introductory video

  • Scientist interview questions – See links below

  • Meet the Scientist video: Zachary Prusak

Background for the Teacher:
Wildfires often occur naturally when lightning strikes a forest and starts a fire in a forest or grassland. Humans also often accidentally set them. In contrast, controlled burns, also known as prescribed fires, are set by land managers and conservationists to mimic some of the effects of these natural fires.
Today controlled burns are often conducted to counteract years of fire prevention policy, which called for all fires to be suppressed as quickly as possible. The policy of blanket fire suppression resulted in a tremendous buildup of forest underbrush and natural litter, such as pine needles. As a result, when these forests do catch on fire, the fire can be very destructive and intense. Controlled burns reduce the buildup of forest underbrush and litter, effectively lowering the intensity of future wildfires. Since 1972 National Park officials have adopted a policy of letting selected lightning-caused fires burn themselves out, within reason. Fires that threaten human lives, buildings, private property, or wildlife are extinguished.
In certain ecosystems, fires are necessary for the health of plant and animal species. The quick recovery of vegetation is evidence of how fire enhances habitat for most plants and animals in Florida. Herbivores, such as the white-tailed deer, are attracted to the highly nutritious plants after a fire. Fruit production is stimulated by fire, resulting in increased availability of seeds and berries that provide food for many species of wildlife. Predator populations increase in these areas, as they are attracted to increase in prey. Both plants and animals have developed adaptations to survive in this unique ecosystem even relying on each other for protection. Controlled burns help preserve plant succession patterns in the forest and habitat that supports diverse plant and animal species that have evolved over a long period of time exposed to both the natural influences of lightning-caused fire, as well as effects caused by indigenous human populations that have utilized fire for a wide variety of reasons.

Classroom Activities:

For each group of students/individual student:

  • Notebook paper/journal


  1. Ask students to fold a piece of paper into two columns and label one as Harmful and the other as Helpful. Guide students to brainstorm ways that fire can be harmful and ways it is helpful.

    1. Examples of harmful may include: damaging buildings, ecosystems and harming people.

    2. Examples of helpful may include: cooking, heating, and powering machines, its symbolic use in religious practices and during ceremonies such as the Olympics.

  2. Facilitate a discussion asking students to share from their list.

  3. Pose the following questions as students view the following photograph:

    1. What do you think is happening in the photograph? How long did it take you to decide? What information in the photograph helped you decide?

    2. Were you curious about why this fire occurred?

    3. Did you wonder about where this was taking place?

    4. Do you think this fire is harmful or helpful? Why?

Be sure to take this opportunity to explain that fire is necessary to the health of some ecosystems.

  1. Explain that some fires are caused naturally by lightning or set accidently by humans. Fire managers, as controlled burns, set other fires.

  2. Share with the students the Fire overview video.

  3. Explain to students that they will work to answer these questions during the lesson. Focus their attention on the guiding questions:

    1. What role does fire play in maintaining healthy ecosystems?

    2. How does fire impact the surrounding community?

    3. Is there a need to prescribe fire?

    4. How have plants and animals adapted to fire?

    5. What factors must fire managers consider prior to planning and conducting controlled burns?


  1. Explain that Florida is an example of an area that has many naturally occurring wildfires, because its geographical location lends itself to frequent lightning.

  2. Have students view the Meet the Scientist: Zachary Prusak video and then the scientist video “How has a place like Florida been shaped by fire?”

  3. After students view the video, have them identify the following statements as true or false.:

  • Lightning first became a major source of wildfires in Florida in the 1970s.

  • Many organisms depend on fire.

  • Fire is not a natural part of an ecosystem.

  1. Provide students with the definition of Controlled Burn – A fire purposefully lit in order to safely apply a natural process to ensure ecosystem health. Re-emphasize the concept of wildfires as a valuable and necessary part of forest or grassland ecosystems.

  2. Share the scientist video “How do prescribed fires benefit plants, animals and people?”

  3. Explain that fire manager Zachary Prusak mentioned some of the benefits of fire. Explain to students that fires work for us and are a critical role in many ecosystems, like those found in Florida. Next, students will explore a variety of ways that fire can benefit ecosystems. Guide small groups of students to conduct a gallery walk: students will rotate around the room to the different examples of the benefits of fires. Have students use a capture sheet with the different examples listed (bulleted below) to record their investigation. At each station, ask students to identify if the benefits impact plants and animals, humans or both.

  • Reduce hazardous fuels

  • Dispose of logging debris

  • Prepare sites for seeding/planting

  • Improve wildlife habitat

  • Manage competing vegetation

  • Control insects and disease

  • Improve forage for grazing

  • Enhance appearance

  • Improve access

  • Perpetuate fire-dependent species

  1. Now that students have explored how fires can benefit ecosystems, they are going to investigate how certain plants and animals have adapted to wildfires. Provide the definition of Adaptation – a characteristic that increases an organism’s ability to survive and reproduce in its environment.

  1. Provide the definition of Behavioral Adaptation – this is something an animal does, usually in response to some type of external stimulus. Explain to students behavioral adaptations are things animals do to survive. Over generations, animals have adapted to know what to do when there is a change in their environment.

  2. Provide students with the definition of Keystone Species – a species that has a critical role in maintaining the structure of an ecological community.

  3. Share the Scientist video “Why is the gopher tortoise one of this area's keystone species?” This video further explains how species have adapted to this unique ecosystem.

  4. Share the Scientist video “How does a Gopher Tortoise burrow work and what animals rely on it?” This video provides examples of how other animals rely on the Gopher Tortoise burrows during a wildfire.

  5. Reinforce that the animals students previously observed were able to adjust their behavior to avoid fire. However, the plants they will view next have developed a different type of adaptation. Explain to students that three plant adaptations will be discussed in the following video. As they view the video, they should think about whether each species’ adaptation is to protect the species, promote or advance its population, or both.

  6. Have students view the scientist video “How do plants and grasses adapt to fire?” After the video, review students’ responses.

  7. Provide students with the definition of a Structural Adaptation – a physical feature or part of an organism’s body that has helped it survive in its environment. Explain that structural adaptations are physical features that help protect the plants against fires.

  8. Option: Check out The Nature Conservancy’s slideshow on Florida’s Fire Dependent Plants and Animals for students to investigate additional adaptations to fire.


  1. Explain to students that the person responsible for organizing and conducting a controlled burn is called the “Burn Boss.” (This is not considered to be informal; that is the correct title. A “Fire Manager” is a term that denotes the person in charge of a fire program; it is more of a Federal fire term.) Ask students to work in small groups and answer the question, “As a Burn Boss, what are some things you would need to consider before setting a controlled burn?” Guide students to brainstorm factors. Direct students to write each response on a separate sticky note. Provide students with categories to consider like impacts on the ecosystem, effects on humans, and impacts of weather and climate. As students brainstorm, ask them to add their response on a chalkboard or a larger wall or floor space under the category it supports. Ask students in small groups to rank the items under each category from most important to least important. Guide them into sharing their ranking and defending their top choice.

  2. View the scientist video “Explanation of a prescribed fire or controlled burn.” Explain that there are several phases for a controlled burn. Review these with students.

  1. First, biologists and natural resource managers inventory (identify and count) plant and tree species in the area of the burn. They measure the slope of the land (fire moves faster on steeper slopes). They also look at the weather, including expected precipitation (rain), wind direction and speed, and relative humidity. This information is used to develop a burn plan. The burn is only done when it is safe and the fire can be controlled.

  1. Trained professionals start, manage, and extinguish the controlled burn. They wear protective clothing and have water and equipment ready to extinguish the fire. The fire in the picture is low intensity with short flames and was done in April 2005.

  1. The landscape immediately after the burn seems inhospitable, but the burnt grass and plants provide nutrients to the soil.

  1. Several months later, the warm, bare soil is filled with nutrients new plants need to grow. The final photo is of the same field in June 2005, two months after the controlled burn. The green grass is abundant.

  1. Explain that burn bosses directly affect how and where fires are allowed to burn by managing wildfires and setting controlled burns. In places with fire-adapted plants and animals, burn bosses are increasingly using fire as a tool to increase ecosystems’ resilience to the impacts of climate change and other threats, ensuring that natural areas continue to provide healthy habitats and clean water for people.

  1. Conclude the lesson by using calling sticks to randomly select individuals to summarize the adaptations of plants and animals in Florida.

  2. Reinforce the concept that forest fires and prairie fires are a part of nature; they’re both powerful change agents that shape ecosystems. The specific pattern of fire—including how frequently it burns, how hot it burns, and during which season it burns — helps dictate the types of plants and animals found in a given area and the adaptations they need to survive. Reinforce that fires can have implications for human safety as well and influence the infrastructure and economy in a given area. In turn, the landscape and structures in an area can often help to contain fires and limit their potentially negative impacts

Have students self-evaluate for:

  • Their understanding of the role fire plays in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

  • Examples and descriptions of how plants and animals have developed adaptations to protect them from fire.

  • Examples and descriptions of the factors fire managers consider prior to planning and conducting controlled burns.

Specific questions:

  1. Compare and contrast Behavioral and Structural Adaptations.

  2. State three benefits of fires to an ecosystem.

  3. Describe why a fire may be prescribed and what factors must be considered.

Additional resources and further reading
Introduction To Prescribed Fire In Southern Ecosystems

Brand-new guide to fire management and use in the Southern US.
Fire Effects Information System (FEIS)

FEIS summarizes and synthesizes research about living organisms in the United States—their biology, ecology, and relationship to fire.
Firewise Communities

The National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) Firewise Communities program encourages local solutions for wildfire safety by involving homeowners, community leaders, planners, developers, firefighters, and others in the effort to protect people and property from wildfire risks.

Yellowstone National Park

Information and photographs of forest fires in Yellowstone, this site lists daily reports of fires in the park.

Ecopals includes information about forest fires and forest fire prevention.

Article about how satellites are used to detect forest fires and save lives.

Video about a controlled burn within the Apalachicola Bluffs & Ravines Preserve, a site owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy.
National Interagency Fire Center

From the National Interagency Fire Center this site refreshes every day and includes a color-coded map of the United States indicating areas that are at risk for forest fires.
Fuel Model Map

Maintained by the USDA Forest Service this site is part of the wildfire assessment system.
Daily Fire Weather Observations

Provides up to the minute weather information including temperature, precipitation, and wind conditions for at-risk areas in the United States.
National Weather Site

Comprehensive national weather reports.

New York Times

Article: Forest fire research questions the wisdom of prescribed burns.

© Copyright 2012 Discovery Education, Inc. All rights reserved. Discovery Education Inc. is a subsidiary of Discovery Communications, LLC.

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